Commentary | To ensure boosts in transportation, education spending, look to bonds

Workers last week repaired the pedestrian walkway between Columbia Road and the lobby at JFK/UMass Station. (Gintautas Dumcius photo)

One of the more consequential results of November’s election was the passage of Question 1, which amended the state’s constitution to create an additional income tax of 4 percent (in addition to the flat 5 percent that everyone pays) for annual income over $1 million.

The question won based upon promises that it would generate as much as $2 billion per year in additional funding to improve education and transportation across the state. Opponents argued that because the use of the funding would be subject to annual appropriation by the Legislature, the new money might just displace existing funding and produce no improvement in education or transportation.

Since the election, opponents are arguing for changes in the new tax law that would lower the new revenue generated. Given the huge effort involved in passing the referendum, it is very important that Gov. Healey, who supported a “yes” vote, work with the Legislature to ensure that there are visible and significant new multi-year investments that will improve education and transportation.

The most effective way to do this is by passing bond issues based upon $2 billion per year in new investment that will be dedicated to education and transportation matters that are clearly additional strategic programs. If the Legislature and the governor decide to modify the details of the new tax in a way that reduces net new revenue, they could supplement revenue erosion adequately to float bonds that will be supported by at least $2 billion in annual debt service.

Assuming that there should be at least $1billion per year in funding for education, and $1 billion per year for transportation, there can be dedicated, multi-year funding for these new strategic investments:

In transportation, there could be a bond issue dedicated to preventive maintenance managed and overseen by the transportation secretary. The lack of this maintenance is the key reason that we are seeing such failures in performance at the MBTA. And, while less dramatically visible, the same problem is also very serious for bridges owned by the state Department of Transportation, and even more so with respect to municipally owned bridges.

Simple visual observation through the windshield will see that an embarrassingly large preponderance of bridges over highways are unsightly and rusting. Effective preventive maintenance for bridges takes a multi-year approach, with competent engineering oversight — a practice very difficult to achieve in annual budgeting, when there are less complex pavement maintenance needs that are more visible over greater parts of the road network.They tend to get first attention in limited annual budgets.

A large bond fund supported by debt service of $1 billion per year can set up an ongoing multi-year preventive maintenance program to be managed in a complementary manner with new replacement capital and deferred maintenance programs that are federally supported. As a result, we can set our MBTA and bridge infrastructure on a path to a systemwide state of good repair that has simply not been achievable with our business-as-usual practices:

In education, there could be dedicated multi-year funding for two initiatives:

Provision for dramatically lower tuition for community colleges, and provision for universal access to two years of pre-kindergarten in every public school system throughout the state.

Improving access to the community college system is critical to supplementing high school education for graduates unable to continue to four year colleges, helping high school graduates get good jobs, and assisting the private sector in finding the well-trained workers they need to remain competitive nationally. 

Systemwide access for all students to two years of pre-kindergarten can significantly improve the chance for success in the school systems. Funding these education initiatives would also have the added benefit of decreasing income inequality. With Massachusetts having the seventh worst rate of income inequality in the US, funding them would significantly increase income potential for low-income families.

While bonding for infrastructure maintenance is similar to other public works programs that the public is accustomed to, it seems unusual in the education field. But strategic interventions into the structure of education programs are not so different. Education is part of the infrastructure that keeps our economy healthy and equitable. It is very difficult to set up new programs because school systems live in a world of annual appropriations and will be understandably reluctant to try a new approach that may be difficult to maintain down the road.

A multiyear program managed statewide by the secretary of education can jump start low-cost access to community college and two years of pre-kindergarten because multi-year funding from the surtax will reassure the school systems that the funding will continue. These expenditures pay dividends over decades, so it is appropriate to spread the cost over years of benefit and beneficiaries through a dedicated multi-year fund supported by a bond bill.

These suggested bond-based payment structures should ensure the public that Question One funding will be used as intended, with measurable long-term results that make Massachusetts transportation infrastructure safer and our students better able to succeed with their education. We urge the governor and the Legislature to adopt these ideas.

Frederick P. Salvucci is a civil engineer who worked with Boston Mayor Kevin White and Gov. Michael Dukakis. Bill Walczak, a Reporter columnist, is the founder and former CEO of the Codman Square Health Center.

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